With Russiagate hysteria triumphant in the US media, all the world’s daily news goes through a filter to isolate and cultivate real or imaginary “Russian influence” and “meddling.” And if the news item genuinely relates to bilateral relations with Russia, then a feeding frenzy may be expected. Such is the case with every direct contact between this Administration and the Kremlin, none more so than the summit meeting of the two Presidents held in Helsinki on 16 July.
This unhealthy, prejudicial mindset takes in the whole US political establishment, both the vast majority positioned against Trump and the small minority of Russia specialists who speak out against the majority’s obsession with a seemingly all powerful, satanic Putin, but who themselves by their professional focus, do not see the wider world, the big picture and at best are arguing that “Putin didn’t do it.”
Donald Trump’s comportment at the press conference which concluded the summit meeting in Helsinki was deemed by much of the US media to confirm suspicions of collusion with the Kremlin, that Trump is a kind of “Manchurian candidate,” that Moscow has some kind of hold over him. Alternatively, it was opined that Trump is captivated by authoritarian rulers, by populists-nationalists like Putin.
As regards Donald Trump’s non-Russia specific Tweets and actions bearing on foreign and economic policy, they are generally dismissed as whimsical, unpredictable, changeable and merely symptomatic of his supposedly amateurish and childish behavior, something which we must tolerate until he is impeached or his term runs out and he is replaced by an “adult” who will restore traditional values and priorities.
There are very few commentators in mainstream US media who try to see an overriding policy guiding Trump’s foreign policy actions outside its alleged pro-Russian disposition. And those who do leave us with more questions than answers.
I have in mind the stream of analysis that is summed up well by the title of an opinion article written by David Leonhardt in the 10 June issue of The New York Times: “Trump Tries to Destroy the West.” The following remarks at its start sum up the case neatly:
“It’s impossible to get inside [Trump’s] head and divine his strategic goals, if he even has long-term goals. But put it this way: If a president of the United States were to sketch out a secret, detailed plan to break up the Atlantic alliance, that plan would bear a striking resemblance to Trump’s behavior. It would involve outward hostility to the leaders of Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Japan. Specifically, it would involve picking fights over artificial issues – not to win big concessions for the United States, but to create conflict for the sake of it.”
This angle of analysis has been best developed in the lengthy daily summaries of news and interpretation issued as emails to subscribers by The Washington Post, in what they call “Today’s WorldView.” Initiated a couple of months ago in obvious competition with The New York Times weekday “Briefings,” this digest compiled by Ishaan Tharoor offers not only items from the host newspaper but also links to related articles in other mainstream publications such as The New Yorker, The Guardian and also the unpublished observations of those whom he calls his “colleagues.”
The 18 July issue of “Today’s WorldView” poses the question “Is Trump at war with the West?” This newsletter draws on the results of Trump’s summit in Helsinki, bu also looks back to his performance in Brussels at the NATO gathering: “To many Trump critics, his performances in both cities capped a year and a half of both tacit and overt attacks on the transatlantic alliance.”
Tharoor quotes from New York Times columnist David Brooks who concluded that Trump’s behavior was that “of a man who wants the alliance to fail.” He quotes extensively from Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister and leader of the Liberal political fraction in the European Parliament fighting for a much more integrated EU, who sees Trump as the enemy of liberal internationalism and ally of his own alt right enemies in Europe.
Tharoor also brings into play Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, who delivered a scathing attack on Trump for his rejection of the West: “…today the U.S. president appears hostile to core American values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law; he feels no loyalty to allies; he rejects open markets; and he despises international institutions.”
In the 23 July issue of “Today’s WorldView,” Tharoor takes advantage of the time gone by since Helsinki to refine the conclusions. He offers a pithy commentary from Susan Glasser of The New Yorker: “We are witnessing nothing less than the breakdown of American foreign policy.”
In the same issue, Tharoor notes that public reaction to Trump in Helsinki is less pronounced than one might suppose from reading the pundits. He offers the following remarks of colleagues on the results of a recent poll: “Most Americans do not feel Trump went ‘too far’ in supporting Puitn, and while more Americans say U.S. leadership has gotten weaker than stronger under Trump, his ratings on this question are slightly improved from last fall.”
If we go back in time to the days following Trump’s visit to the NATO gathering in Brussels, we find in the headlines of the 11 July issue another take on what Trump is doing:
“Trump’s NATO trip shows ‘America First’ is ‘America Alone.’”
Here we read about Trump’s insistence that America “stop footing Europe’s bill” for its defense, namely his demand that all NATO allies pay up 2% of GDP at once, not in the remote future; and that they prepare to double that to 4% very quickly. By intentional abrasiveness, these moves by Trump are, Tharoor tells us, “undercutting the post-World War II order in pursuit of short-term, and likely illusory, wins.”
All of these comments address the question of what Trump opposes. However, Tharoor is unable to say what, if anything, Trump stands for. There are only hints: continued US hegemony but without the ideological cover; might makes right; nationalism and the disputes that lead to war.
Does this make sense? Or is it just another way of saying that Trump’s foreign policy stance is an inconsistent patchwork, illogical and doomed to fail while causing much pain and destruction along the way?
I fully agree with the proposition that Donald Trump is ripping up the post-Cold War international order and is seeking to end NATO and the rest of the alliance system by which the United States has maintained its global hegemony for decades. But I believe this destructive side is guided by a creative vision of where he wants to take US foreign policy.
This new foreign policy of Donald Trump is based on an uncompromising reading of the teachings of the Realist School of international affairs, such as we have not seen since the days of President Teddy Roosevelt, who was its greatest practitioner in US history.
This is not isolationism, because Trump is acting to defend what he sees as US national interests in foreign trade everywhere and in geopolitics in one or another part of the world. However, it is a world in which the US is cut free from the obligations of its alliances which entail maintenance of overseas bases everywhere at the cost of more than half its defense budget. He wants to end the risks of being embroiled in regional wars that serve our proxies, not core US national interests. And he is persuaded that by a further build-up of military might at home, by adding new hi-tech materiel the US can secure its interests abroad best of all.
I reach these conclusions from the snippets of Trump remarks which appear in the newspapers of daily record but are intentionally left as unrelated and anecdotal, whereas when slotted together they establish the rudiments of an integrated worldview and policy.
For example, I take his isolated remark that the United States should not be prepared to go to war to defend Montenegro, which recently passed NATO accession, because Montenegro had been a trouble-maker in the past. That remark underwent virtually no analysis in the media, though it could be made only by someone who understood, remarkably, the role of Montenegro at the Russian imperial court of Nicholas II precisely as “troublemaker,” whose dynastic family aided in their own small way the onset of WWI.
Donald Trump is not a public speaker. He is not an intellectual. We cannot expect him to issue some “Trump Doctrine” setting out his Realist conception of the geopolitical landscape. All we get is Tweets. This inarticulate side of Trump has been used by his enemies to argue he has no policy.
In fact, Trump is the only Realist on the landscape.
Going back to 2016, I thought he was being guided by Henry Kissinger during the campaign and then in the first months of his presidency, I misjudged entirely. Trump is true to the underlying principles of Realism without compromise, whereas Henry K. made his peace with the prevailing Wilsonian Idealism of the American Establishment a couple of decades ago in order to remain welcome in the Oval Office and not to be entirely marginalized.
Trump’s vision of Realism draws from the source in the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648 with its guiding concept of sovereign nation-states that do not intervene in others’ domestic affairs. It further draws on the notions of raison d’état or national interest developed by the French court of Louis XIV and then taken further by “perfidious Albion” in the eighteenth century, with temporary and ever changing combinations of states in balance of power realignments of competitors. The history of the Realist School was set out magnificently by Kissinger in his 1994 work Diplomacy. It is a pity that the master himself strayed from true and narrow.
In all of this, you have the formula for Trump’s respect, even admiration for Putin, since that also is now Vladimir Vladimirovich’s concept of Russia’s way forward: as a strong sovereign state that sets its own course without the constraints of alliances and based on its own military might.
The incredible thing is how a man with such poor communication skills, a man who does not read much came to such an integrated vision that outstrips the conceptual abilities of his enemies, his friends and everyone in between.
We are tempted to look for a mentor, and one who comes to mind is Steve Bannon, who is very articulate, razor-sharp in his intellect and who provided Trump with much of the domestic content of his 2016 campaign from the alt right playbook. And though Bannon publicly broke with Trump in their falling out over his ever diminishing role in the Administration, Bannon’s ongoing project, in particular his Movement to influence European politics and shift it to the Right by coordinating activities across the Continent during the parliamentary elections of May 2019, very closely parallel what Trump’s ambassador in Berlin seems to be doing in Trump’s name.
It may well be that the President and his confidantes find it prudent for him to play the hapless fool, the clueless disrupter of the global political landscape until he has the support in Congress to roll out the new foreign policy that is now in gestation.
The logical consequence of such a Realist approach to foreign policy will be to reach an understanding with the world’s other two principal military powers, Russia and China, regarding respective spheres of influence in their geographic proximity. But I do not believe we will see a G-3 succeeding America’s unipolar moment. Given the predispositions of both Russia and China, we are more likely to see a broader board of governors of global policy in the form of the G-20, ushering in the multipolar age. In such a formulation, regional conflicts will be settled locally by the interested parties and with the major powers involved only as facilitators, not parties to conflict. That promises a much more stable and peaceful future, something which none of Donald Trump’s detractors can begin to imagine as his legacy.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018